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'Necessary Fictions' by Barbara Croft

Drue Heinz prize winner tells 'Necessary Fictions'

Sunday, November 15, 1998

By Betsy Kline, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

 
 

Necessary Fictions

By Barbara Croft

University of Pittsburgh Press
$22.50

   
 

There are only two facts, birth and death, and in between some necessary fictions.” In the case of the Gerhardt family, the once-functional fictions are fraying, unraveling into a painful tangle of self-healing truths. And the sense of relief spills over to the reader, who shares the catharsis.

The winner of the 1998 Drue Heinz Literature Prize, “Necessary Fictions” by Illinois writer Barbara Croft, explores the chasm between reality and the little stories and flimsy interpretations we build up around our everyday lives to make the ill-fitting truth more comfortable to live with.

The people of Croft’s short fictions are not grand deceivers, just ordinary people coping with the disappointment of dreams that somehow deflated when they weren’t looking.

“Necessary Fictions” comprises a half dozen short stories and a self-contained grouping of a short novella nestled amid three short pieces dealing with the Gerhardts, a salt-of-the-earth Iowa family ruled by an iron-willed father in pursuit of the American dream.

In “Me and Ray and Bud,” we meet two Gerhardt offspring, Ray Jr. and baby sister Maggie, who are off to hunt with Ray’s best friend Bud. In a compact few pages, Croft foreshadows in real violence — the bloody extermination of an unlucky tree squirrel — the mental and emotional anguish that is to follow.

Bud’s taste for blood underscores his urgent desire to enlist for the Vietnam War. Ray is less excited by the prospect. Seventeen-year-old Maggie is unsettled by the fate of the squirrel, the war talk drifting over her head.

In the following story, “Little Brothers,” the action moves forward to the mid-1970s. Maggie is visiting Ray and Christine in Chicago and trying to help her sister-in-law puzzle out the malaise that has afflicted her brother since he returned a decorated hero from the war.

Chris’ brother Bud was killed in action. Maggie’s married to Bill and living in Canada, where they fled to avoid the draft. Maggie and Chris are close, yet they can’t admit to each other that war has killed Ray’s spirit. Blame the booze, blame the lack of a job; they want to believe that Ray will snap out of it.

But snapping out of our delusions is never easy. Sometimes we just snap.

In the emotionally charged novella “Necessary Fictions,” we meet the whole Gerhardt clan:

Father Raymond, a proud World War II veteran and tireless carpenter bent on building the ideal house for his ideal family; mother Ruth, a poet by nature who throws her energies into making an Ozzie-and-Harriet life for her brood despite repeated displacements to handyman specials and continual camping in the rubble of another rehab project; Ray, who inherits his father’s manual skills but not his focus; and Maggie, who absorbs her mother’s love of literature by osmosis.

Croft shifts deftly backwards and forward in time, weaving her web of fictions. It is through Maggie’s eyes that we experience their painful predicament, although it is very much the men’s story.

After years of struggling to build his dream house and working around the clock for other less scrupulous contractors to stay ahead of debt, Raymond is dealt a harsh blow when a coworker’s house goes up in flames, claiming several family members.

Then a much-wanted addition to the Gerhardt family is born, only to die of crib death at three months.

After retirement, something in Raymond lets go. The official story is that he died in a one-car accident, going 85 mph on a dark road, flipping his car over a bridge railing.

“My father wasn’t wearing a seatbelt. My father always wore a seatbelt. ‘I’m sure there’s a perfectly logical explanation,’ my mother said.” The unspeakable verdict is suicide.

Coping with the tragedy, the family flashes back to their own interpretations of their lives in what they thought were happier times. Maggie’s husband Bill’s attempts to force the truth meet with disbelief and more fabrications.

“The American family, ours included, collapsed of its own weight; that’s Bill’s explanation. An excess of feeling, unexpressed, ideals and expectations far too grand. He called that Ozzie and Harriet nuclear family a brief phantom blip on the cosmic radar screen of history, something we thought was there and really wasn’t.”

Closing up the house their dad built as their mother prepares to move to Florida, Maggie, who has come to accept her dad’s suicide for what it was, tries to force an even more horrific truth from her brother — what exactly happened to him in Vietnam.

It is a story he starts and stops many times, creating different storylines, adding new embellishments, anything but the truth. Ray is the victim of a foreign war so different from the one his dad fought. Croft builds up a catharsis that is no less tragic than their father’s loss of faith.

The final story in the family saga, “Almost Home,” brings Maggie to Christine’s rescue again, as she deals with the specter of breast cancer. Harsh realities have become commonplace, and Maggie, at least, has become more adept at dealing with them.

Croft’s language echoes the rhythm of life, ebbing and flowing in fits and starts as it encounters truths large and small and decides whether to flow over or around them. Her imagery is understated yet indelible.

Absorbed in the Gerhardt past, we can almost smell the freshly planed wood and hear the whine of the buzz saw.

The six stories that open the collection are nuggets of writerly precision. Modest narrative gives way to soul-scanning description. In the matter of a very few pages we see entire lives telescoped. In “Bonaparte,” a runaway wife with artistic yearnings heads to New Orleans with her 12-year-old daughter in tow. Her artistic adventure in the name of beauty begins and ends at the vanity table when her enraged husband shows up.

In “Them,” a wealthy Oak Park, Ill., matron is shaken when a pair of strangers enter her home and assault her with the knowledge of the rare architectural beauty of her home that she is guilty of failing to appreciate.

An out-of-town phone call in the middle of a party wrenches an artist into the past with the news of the death of a once-close friend whose whole life was a work of art in “Three Weeks in Italy and France.”

Croft is a formidable talent. The Drue Heinz committee has done itself proud in recognizing that fact and honoring this book, which deserves a wide audience.

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